Under the specious claim of delivering "aid to Africa," western governments are backing an initiative—described by some as another form of "colonialism"—that is effectively enabling the corporate takeover of African nations by some of the world’s biggest food and agriculture companies.
On Wednesday, as corporate executives, politicians, and G7 officials assembled in Cape Town, South Africa for a closed-door meeting of the G7’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a coalition of small scale farmers, unions, workers, and food sovereignty groups released a statement condemning the program.
Though the public-private initiative has been championed by U.S. President Barack Obama, among others, as a means to combat poverty in Africa by bolstering "sustained, inclusive, agriculture-led" growth with the goal of raising "50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years," its critics say the New Alliance actually undermines the rights and food security of citizens of its partner nations.
In fact, some suggest, the rise of such programs signals a shift in the way the world is governed.
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Under the New Alliance, ten African governments—Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania—have "committed to develop or revise policies that will facilitate responsible private investment in agriculture in support of smallholder farmers." However, the opposition coalition says, since its inception in 2012, there is little evidence of any positive impact. Instead, the policy changes have paved the way for corporate exploitation of local land and people.
According to the coalition statement, the New Alliance policies "facilitate the grabbing of land and other natural resources, further marginalize small-scale producers, and undermine the right to adequate food and nutrition"—all in the interest of courting large multi-nationals.
For example, at the urging of the New Alliance, a bill often referred to as the "Monsanto law," which criminalizes the saving and swapping of seeds, is poised for passage by the parliament of Ghana. A recent report put forth by international peasant farmer and food justice groups La Via Campesina and Grain notes that students and union groups who have been fighting the bill say it is a "precondition sought by transnational corporations as a requirement for operating in Africa."
"Unfortunately G7 governments policies seem to be more about increasing corporate profits through access to African land and labor, and opening markets to sell patented seeds and pesticides rather than realizing the right to food."
—Doug Hertzler, ActionAid USA
Also, under commitments made by the governments of Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania, a seperate report (pdf) published on Wednesday by the international NGO ActionAid USA found that small farmers are being forced off their property as 1.8 million hectares of the countries' most desirable farmland has been offered to foreign investors, amounting to little more than what they call a corporate land-grab.
And in Tanzania, a New Alliance initiative threatens (pdf) to displace more than 1,300 people as the government works to recategorize village land to make it available for a Swedish-owned EcoEnergy sugarcane plantation.
While the benefits of such "investment" are tempting at first, many on the ground are now realizing what's at stake.
Josaphat Mshighati, head of programs and policy for ActionAid Tanzania, told Common Dreams that instead of increasing food security, farmers are losing access to the land in exchange for jobs laboring at an industrial agriculture plantation, whose sole crop is being raised for export.
"It is a form of colonialism," Mshighati said. "Small holder farmers are turned into labourers serving in big, private agriculture investments and some of them totally lose their access to productive land. Hence, they become much more dependent."
Further, he added that African governments including Tanzania are "being pushed to change their seed policies to allow for 'more modern seeds' that will definitely be supplied by big private companies. Thus, the indigenous seeds will perish in few years and all farmers will have to rely on seeds from the western companies."
Finally, the government policy changes that are forcing people off their land, he said, will ultimately "create disharmony between citizens and the government." All of these impacts, Mshighati concluded, "can be related to the previous history between Africa and the west—exploitation of a higher kind."
Doug Hertzler, senior policy analyst with ActionAid USA, also told Common Dreams: "Unfortunately G7 governments policies seem to be more about increasing corporate profits through access to African land and labor, and opening markets to sell patented seeds and pesticides rather than realizing the right to food."
On the other side of the New Alliance arrangement, private sector companies—which include some of the world’s biggest food and biotechnology corporations—have described through Letters of Intent how they plan to pursue allegedly "responsible investments in African agriculture and food security through models that maximize benefits to smallholder farmers."
These commitments have been made by food and agriculture giants including Syngenta, Monsanto, Nestle, Bayer CropScience, and Coca-Cola, among many others.
A model of corporate governance
After initially participating in the New Alliance Leadership Council, last year Oxfam International announced it was pulling out.
"The voices of farmer’s organizations, women’s producer groups and civil society organizations and CSO groups have, on the whole, been ad hoc and inadequately integrated into this policy planning," explained Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research for Oxfam International's GROW campaign. This has lead to "serious concerns that the priorities of the Alliance reflect the interests of its more powerful members."
The New Alliance-backed changes in government policy have created an environment that threatens to "'tip the balance' of investment towards larger players, rather than small-scale producers and family farmers, and could harm the environment through the industrial, high-input model of agriculture," Gore said.
Finally, he warned, "this creates an acute risk that the members of the Alliance have created a form of global governance which is exclusive and potentially self-serving."
As critics note, the New Alliance model adheres to the same neoliberal ideology as 'trickle-down' economics, which has been increasingly discredited.
Dan Iles, food sovereignty campaigner with Global Justice Now, described the New Alliance as "a branding exercise," under which western governments have funneled aid money previously committed to alleviating poverty in Africa and essentially channeled it into the pockets of big, international agriculture corporations.
"In the public imagination, nation states are the main actors, when actually the corporate interests—which are not connected to the public world and whose primary purpose is to maximize profit—are now given equal weight."
—Martin Kirk, The Rules
The U.S. alone has committed at least $2 billion dollars for the effort.
Similarly, an August 2014 report (pdf) by the Global Policy Forum describes the New Alliance as "a political process designed to reserve corporate actors a seat at the table," where business is giving a role "almost equal to governments." The initiative, the report continues, "serves as an excellent example of a form of governance that is increasingly gaining importance on a global scale."
As writer and activist Martin Kirk explained to Common Dreams, while the New Alliance puts on a "very humanitarian face" it is part of a trend that is "actually shifting how we govern the world." The model, Kirk says, is also being followed by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the World Economic Forum.
"In the public imagination, nation states are the main actors, when actually the corporate interests—which are not connected to the public world and whose primary purpose is to maximize profit—are now given equal weight," continued Kirk, who is a member of The Rules, a global network dedicated to tackling root causes of inequality and poverty.
The danger, Kirk continues, is that the New Alliance promotes this corporate concept as the only solution to overcoming hunger, when it fact it is "far from the only one."
A local answer
While most of the small scale farmers, villagers and other individuals directly impacted by the New Alliance initiative are unaware of upper-level mechanisms behind their forced relocation or intrusive growing restrictions, there are tremors of resistance.
Nearly 100 farmers organizations, social movements, and civil society groups from around the world endorsed the statement on Wednesday. Meanwhile, growing protests against pending policy changes, such as the "Monsanto law" in Ghana, are further spreading the word.
If outside actors want to help strengthen food security in Africa, advocates say that the solution must lift up the local community.
Small-scale farmers are currently producing 70 percent of the food in Africa, according to the coalition statement. "Addressing food and nutrition insecurity on the continent requires the full participation of those who are already producing, and promoting an agricultural system based on human rights and food sovereignty through local control over natural resources, seeds, land, water, forests, knowledge and technology."
Josaphat Mshighati said that the biggest hurdle for small farmers is a lack of rain, so directing funds to nation-based agricultural development programs, such as small and medium irrigation projects, would provide a huge boost for the local economy.
And Dan Iles added: "What small scale farmers need is investment in infrastructure that links them more locally and regionally...Where control and ownership over the means of farming, buying and selling food and the culture of food is held by farmers (and people)—not outside elites."